In this essay, I am going to argue that Komuso was a factual group. And I will explore the evidence for the actual existence of the Komuso and describe the fictionalisation of this group and why this might occur.
The Komuso were a group of monks who weared a straw basket on the head and wandered around Japan in the edo period. Although the existence of the Komuso is kind of mysterious and contradictory in modern studies of Japanese history, there are many evidences indicating that the group actually existed.
First of all, there are official documents about Komuso issued by the government at that time, Tokugawa bakufu. The Tokugawa government issued a series of licenses to the Fuke sect which was the institution consisting of Komuso monks (Blasdel, 2005). This provides direct evidence to the existence of Komuso. Also, from the Tsurezure-gusa-nozuchi written by Hayashi Doshun Razan, the advisor of Tokugawa Ieyasu, there are descriptions of some mendicant monks that have many similar characteristics with the Komuso.
Secondly, the image of Komuso was highly visible in various arts of the time. Depictions of the group existed in literature, theatre and woodblock prints at that time. For example, one of the most well-known Japanese kabuki plays, Sukeroku, set its protagonist as a Komuso monk wielding a shakuhachi since the eighteenth century (Blasdel, 2005). The popularity of Komuso theme in different kinds of arts of that time suggests the significant influence of the Komuso and gives evidence to the existence of Komuso indirectly.
Thirdly, the existed shakuhachi music Honkyoku in fact witnessed the existence of Komuso monks in history. As an important part of the suizen practice, playing Honkyoku was actually a unique feature of the Komuso monks in Fuke sect. The Komuso played Honkyoku for enlightenment and alms. The pieces they played were demonstrated in the lists in the late nineteenth century (Deeg, 2007).
However, there are still some mysteries in the history of Komuso. The only source recording the foundation legend of the Fuke sect is called Kyotaku Denki. It was produced under the pressure from the Tokugawa government. The Fuke sect wrote this history statement to seek more freedoms and privileges from the authority (Blasdel, 2005). Thus, the trueness of the statement remains to be doubted based on such background.
Another suspicion is that the reason why the Tokugawa government was willing to give privileges to the Komuso was because the Komuso were actually spies for the government. Taking advantage of the basket on the head, the Komuso could easily eavesdrop on the conversations in various occasions without exposing the identity and could report the secret information to the government later. It is reasonable to infer that the Tokugawa government might have such precondition in exchange for the privileges of the Komuso as Tokugawa wanted to unify the country at that time. Though there are no clear evidence to confirm this suspicion.
- Blasdel, C. (2005). Shakuhachi fantasy and fact. In, C. Blasdel. (2005). The single tone: A personal journay into shakuhachi music. Printed matter press: Tokyo, pp. 33-47.
- Deeg, M. (2007). Komuso and Shakuhachi-Zen: From historical legitimation to the spiritualisation of a buddhist denomination in the edo period. Japanese Religions, 32(1&2): 7-38.